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Appropriators Keep Defense Cuts Close to the Vest

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Frelinghuysen is the new chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

Further, “there is usually money to pull out of personnel and health, just due to chronic under-execution,” the Senate aide said. “For us — we put it all on the table and see where we can get to by doing the least amount of damage.”

The aide added, “A lot of time, we end up cutting 500 to 600 (or more) separate line items in small amounts that eventually add up to real money. That’s something that no one really seems to grasp.”

Still, others suggested the panel would prefer not hitting the operations and maintenance accounts too hard because the military already faces significant readiness challenges after the fiscal 2013 sequestration.

Jim Dyer, who worked as a GOP staffer on the House Appropriations Committee for 26 years, said he would not rule out cutting operations and maintenance funding entirely, because it is the spending account with the greatest flexibility and the smallest constituency base in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and in industry.

“I’m not dismissive of doing that again, because it works and because these readiness accounts are important and cash flow varies and they can move money around,” Dyer said.

Because the war-fighting funds are separate from the base defense budget, the Appropriations panels may attempt to offload some base-budget money into the war-related Overseas Contingency Operations account.

This has been successfully done in prior years in an effort to alleviate the strain on the budget as resources for defense have declined, Dyer said.

He stressed that because personnel and benefits are consuming a greater portion of the budget and there is no great willingness on Capitol Hill to target those accounts, particularly after the budget agreement already cut retiree pensions, lawmakers would be forced to turn to research and development and modernization accounts.

The downside there, Dyer said, is that there are a host of multiyear procurement programs that could be undermined by cuts. Further, each of those programs has influential constituencies that likely would resist cuts.

“Congress has repeatedly forced on the Pentagon more and better multiyear advanced planning activities, so when you rip the stuffing out of these accounts, you are not doing yourself any favors,” Dyer said. “They would be walking away from what they have tried to get them to do for a long time.”

Dyer said appropriators likely would look at troubled programs to find savings. Further, they may seek to delay programs on the drawing board, and possibly end others.

“I wouldn’t rule out terminations,” he said.

Lobbyists Stand Back

Several defense lobbyists said there would have been little to gain by scrambling to influence the panel’s choices.

One longtime lobbyist noted that with Congress facing such a tight deadline, the committees did their “conference at lightning speed.” The lobbyist emphasized that at this late date, “a lot of this is out of our control. Staff has no time to deal with industry and lobbyists.”

Indeed, “we are not as active as we ordinarily would be. Mostly we use email or personal offices asking to intercede for us,” the lobbyist continued.

Many lobbyists are busy reassuring clients that they have spent all year laying groundwork to defend key priorities.

But in the face of an extraordinary gag order, little information is available.

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